by Anthony Breach
The other day I was informed that, along with every other person from Northern Ireland, I was wrong about the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Irish peace process. Rather than being the product of improbable, bewildering, and exhausting negotiations between at least five different parties, it was actually Jeremy Corbyn who “set up peace in Northern Ireland”. This was though I’d never heard any other Northern Irish person before last month utter Corbyn’s name in gratitude, anger, or even at all.
I was directed to an interview with Corbyn (relevant clip) where, along with mentioning his commendable work on the Birmingham Six and some dubious comments on Irish history generally, Corbyn says:
“During the 1980s… we built up regular contacts with Sinn Fein, we were condemned by our own Party Leadership for so doing… and we were proven to be right. In the end, even Margaret Thatcher recognised that there had to be some kind of political settlement in Ireland, that militarily it wasn’t going to be possible, and eventually this became the Good Friday Agreement after the 1997 election.”
How this became “Corbyn set up peace in Northern Ireland” in his supporter’s understanding remains unclear. He is however not the only one to believe this – surprisingly many people are under the impression that Corbyn’s involvement in Northern Irish politics has been not only significant but beneficial.
Corbyn himself makes a politically magical leap from Thatcher’s change in policy and the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but he does at least avoid claiming outright that his talks were the basis for the Agreement, unlike Owen Jones and other Corbyn supporters.
This was however all before a frankly bizarre interview Corbyn conducted with BBC Radio Ulster where, as the leading candidate for the Labour leadership and our potential offer of Prime Minister to the British people, Corbyn five times refused to explicitly condemn the IRA and equated the British army with a non-state terrorist organisation that murdered British civilians as a matter of policy.
For the record, Corbyn’s involvement with Troops Out (the main Irish Republican organisation in Britain); his hosting of members of Sinn Féin in Parliament mere weeks after the Brighton bombing in which his fellow MPs were murdered; and his willingness to publicly talk and be associated with Sinn Féin whilst supporting their political goal of a United Ireland when the IRA had not yet implemented a ceasefire were, at best, without consequence in the peace process, and at worst, a spoiler. Corbyn’s talks did not produce anything of the framework upon which the Good Friday Agreement and the rest of the peace process was built.
More important than the political theatre Corbyn engaged in is the fact that Corbyn has not been consistent in his support of the efforts made by Britain to encourage dialogue and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Most notably, he voted against the critically important 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, saying:
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of us oppose the agreement for reasons other than those that he has given [i.e. Unionist]? We believe that the agreement strengthens rather than weakens the border between the six and the twenty-six counties, and those of us who wish to see a united Ireland oppose the agreement for that reason.
This is not the argument of a lonely peacemaker, working to achieve dialogue with an intransigent IRA, but that of someone who deferred to Sinn Féin’s then-policy on Irish issues. Hence why Corbyn’s refusal to condemn the IRA this week was so worrying – it would be one thing if he was spectacularly naïve and earnestly did just believe that “all bombings were bad”, but the fact he opposed the peace process when Sinn Féin also opposed the peace process indicates he wasn’t interested in a “political settlement” which would have ended those bombings as soon as possible. Most objectionably, whilst nowadays Corbyn claims to be ahead of Thatcher in attempting a political settlement, he neglects to mention he opposed and voted against Thatcher’s most important contribution to peace when she negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement!
In particular, these views of Corbyn’s should raise concerns for any Labour member who supports the Northern Irish peace process. Unionists would reasonably find it difficult to view a Corbyn government as a neutral broker given his record, and even if he failed to act on his principles it would place the already stressed process under extreme pressure. And this is not even considering the worst case scenario of what would happen if Corbyn forced the Republican policy he supports upon Northern Ireland.
Despite all this, it is however easy to understand why Corbyn’s involvement in Northern Ireland appeals to his supporters, even though they don’t understand the conflict. Corbyn’s “talking to Sinn Féin” followed by the Good Friday Agreement over a decade later superficially looks like an example of Labour – and specifically, the hard left of Labour – wielding power despite being out of power.
It’s a lullaby, told to soothe those anxious about the real and well-founded concern a Corbyn-led Labour party would be unable to ever form a Labour government. This is a shame, as our work on the Good Friday Agreement and in securing additional steps in the Northern Ireland peace process is one of the sparkling achievements of the New Labour government.
Those looking at Corbyn’s candidacy with Northern Ireland in mind should remember two things: First, Corbyn’s record is that of an advocate for Sinn Fein and their policy, not that of a peacemaker as some of his supporters claim. Second, it was by being in government, not hosting luncheons with bombers in opposition, that Labour could make a peace in Northern Ireland.
Anthony Breach is a researcher and a London Labour party member